Heather Sprague smiled when she spotted the neon-orange sign taped to the entrance of the headquarters of the Pittsburgh public school district. It directed people seeking the July 15 meeting of the school board to the committee room on the second floor. Just inside the building’s double doors, a security guard was posted at a desk to give further directions if anyone needed them.
Until recently, parents and residents who came to observe or participate in the board’s open meetings had to enter an unmarked door and find their own way to the meeting room, says Sprague, who volunteers in a new effort here to raise the public’s interest in the school board and improve its performance.
“For meetings that were supposed to be public, it was pretty difficult for the public to even find where they [were],” says Sprague, a bankruptcy lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice.
The orange signs represent a small victory in a much larger campaign under way in Pittsburgh to make the school board—which until a few years ago was notorious for personal feuds among its members and constant clashes with the former superintendent—one of the most transparent, productive, and accountable governing bodies in public education.
A nonprofit group called A+ Schools: Pittsburgh’s Community Alliance for Public Education, which works for improvement in the 28,000-student district, launched the governance initiative in January.
Known as Board Watch, the program recruits and trains volunteers like Sprague to evaluate the performance of the school board on five good-governance practices—focus and mission, transparency, conduct, role clarity, and competency—during its public meetings. Every three or four months, Board Watch issues a report card that grades the board on those measures, as well as its overall performance. Board Watch also makes a series of recommendations on how the board can improve.
Since its launch, more than 50 volunteers have signed on to Board Watch. Such an organized watchdog effort focused on the functions of a school board appears to be unique in the nation, observers say.
“This program is as much about holding the board accountable as it is about engaging the public,” says Carey Harris, the executive director of A+ Schools and the founder of Board Watch.
“The board works for the public,” she says, “and if the public doesn’t have clear and high expectations for board members, then it becomes nothing short of a miracle that [members] will do the job that they need to do.”
In the two report cards Board Watch has issued so far, the panel has received mostly mediocre marks. Its strongest point: transparency. Its weakest: role clarity.
“I’m not sure that the report card outcomes always capture what the majority of us are doing, which is killing ourselves to do the right thing,” says Theresa Colaizzi, the president of the school board, who has served on the board since 2001. “But we have nothing to hide, and they have every right to judge us. I welcome the feedback.”
“I think that anybody would be concerned that this could bring us negative publicity, but I think we are getting what we deserve based on our performance,” says William Isler, a member of the board since 1999. “I think in the long run, this program will help improve the image of the school board in the public’s eye.”
Most of the nation’s roughly 14,500 district school boards conduct their meetings before very few people. The local education reporter probably attends, along with a few diehards who show up faithfully to complain or cajole. But to draw parents and a broader swath of community members to a school board meeting usually takes a major controversy, like the closing of a school or the firing of a popular teacher or coach.
Volunteers who attended meetings of the Pittsburgh school board take notes on these goals.
SOURCE: A+ Schools: Pittsburgh’s Community Alliance for Public Education
Such inattention can contribute to the micromanagement, mischief, and malfunctioning that some school boards fall into when no one is watching them do their work, one governance expert says.
“Too often, school boards operate in splendid isolation,” says Michael D. Usdan, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership. “If no one is paying attention, it makes it much easier for a board to get into the weeds, where it’s not usually fruitful for them to spend their time.”
Pittsburgh’s problem wasn’t necessarily that nobody was watching: The board’s antics had become a major attraction on a local television channel that aired its meetings. But seven years ago, the board’s behavior helped drive the district to a low point, when three of the city’s leading philanthropies publicly announced they would cease making new investments in the school system. The decision was motivated, in large part, by an ongoing feud that members of the elected, nine-person board were having with one another, as well as with then-Superintendent John Thompson.
That withdrawal by leaders of the Grable Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, and the Pittsburgh Foundation was a multimillion-dollar blow to the public schools. It prompted Tom Murphy, the city’s mayor at the time, to form a special commission to make recommendations on how to stem the crisis in district governance and leadership.
One recommendation from the commission was the need to form a community-based organization to provide leadership and advocacy for school reform. That became A+ Schools, which was organized in 2004.
Harris, the group’s executive director, says governance was a major concern from the beginning, but it wasn’t until a community meeting was held during a school board election cycle two years ago that the idea for Board Watch was conceived.
Though the school board had come a long way—it hired Mark Roosevelt as superintendent in 2006 and has mostly supported his aggressive reform efforts, which have yielded substantive gains—the public still held largely negative views of the board.
“What we heard from people is that they were frustrated with the board, but that they didn’t really know what the board should have been doing,” Harris says. “This was an opportunity to set the community’s expectations for the board.”
A big obstacle to keeping the board focused on debating and approving strategies for achieving the district’s goals is the Pennsylvania school code, observers here say. The state law spells out that local school boards are to deliberate and vote on matters such as school field trips, acceptance of donations, and the awarding and renewal of contracts of any size, Harris says.
At the board’s July 15 meeting, members worked their way through an inch-thick agenda that included contracts as small $7,000.
Five Board Watch volunteers showed up for that night’s “agenda review,” and observed quietly while the board discussed a range of issues. The volunteers—who wear badges to identify themselves—each filled out a form to rate the board on several measures, including how often they heard members discuss topics related to the board’s own stated goals. Volunteers also grade the board on time management and civility in their comments. At least three Board Watch volunteers attend every meeting. Their paper evaluations are collected after each meeting, and are compiled later with results from other meetings to come up with letter grades.
One of the volunteers is Arita Gilliam, whose daughter graduated from Pittsburgh’s public schools a decade ago. For her, Board Watch became a concrete way to contribute to the district’s improvement. A pregnancy-prevention specialist who works in the city’s schools, she says she was appalled by some of the conditions in which she saw students trying to learn.
“That’s what motivated me more than anything,” Gilliam says.
Sprague, who does not have children, says she gets frustrated at times by the length and lack of focus in the board’s deliberations. At a meeting earlier this year, she says, the board was to vote on clarifying a few words in one sentence in a new edition of the student handbook.
“It turned into a marathon discussion about whether to change the entire truancy policy,” Sprague recalls. “I don’t like seeing the district’s resources being used like that.”
That sort of behavior has prompted Board Watch to issue its lowest grades on “role clarity,” one of the five good-governance indicators the school board is judged on. In fact, the board earned a C on role clarity on its most recent report card, a drop from a C-plus in the first report card, due mostly to the board’s tendency to dwell on line-item expenditures and individual programs, Harris says.
Isler, the school board member, concedes that the board often spends too much time on picayune matters that have little to do with the district’s main purpose.
“If you watch any school board meeting, whether it’s us or some other board, how often do you hear them actually talk about education?” he says. “Slowly, I think Board Watch is going to help us focus on why we are there.”
The board received its best grade so far, a B-plus, for transparency, a mark that Harris says reflects the improved access the public now has to meetings and the board’s decision to post its agendas on the district’s Web site at least one day before it meets.
Still, there is more work to be done, says Gilliam of Board Watch.
“I think our neutral perspective is greatly needed,” she says. “We really want to see them function better, so hopefully they listen to all of our feedback and apply it.”
Colaizzi, the board president, believes the school board is functioning better now than it has in more than a decade. She points to Superintendent Roosevelt’s hiring as one example. She also notes that the district recently made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and is one of five finalists for millions of dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to overhaul the recruitment, training, evaluation, and compensation of teachers.
“We’ve done all of that as a board on our own,” Colaizzi says. “What Board Watch can do, and I am hoping that it does do this, is bring really qualified people to run for the positions that become vacant to keep us moving in the right direction.”
A special report funded by The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2009 edition of Education Week as In Pittsburgh, Monitors Hold School Board Accountable